Interview with novelist James Vella-Bardon


Author James Vella-Bardon helps me wrap up
the week by chatting with me about his new novel, The Sheriff’s Catch.
was born and raised in Malta, an island nation steeped in the millennia of
history. As a boy he often caught a rickety old bus to the capital of Valletta,
where he would hover around the English bookshops to check out the latest
titles in fiction.
Growing up he was an avid reader and a relentless day-dreamer,
with his standout subject at school being English composition. He also won a
couple of national essay competitions. Although he spent seven years studying
and obtaining a doctor of laws degree, this did not cure him of his urge to
write stories. So, after emigrating to Sydney in 2007 he resolved to have a
proper stab at writing his first novel.
The result of this decision is an epic, sprawling five-part
historical fiction series called The Sassana Stone Pentalogy.
It is the product of nine years of intense rewriting and research, and tells
the story of a Spanish Armada survivor who is shipwrecked in Ireland.
The first instalment in the series is a rip-roaring, myth-busting
page-turner called The
Sheriff’s Catch
. Its anti-hero protagonist Abel de Santiago is an
Armada survivor who finds himself on the run across Connacht, whilst being
pursued by English troopers who want him tortured and killed.
Please tell us about your current
It’s very
cross-genre: thriller, mystery, horror, action, adventure, suspense, and historical.
It’s got a pinch of black humour in it and one reviewer even said that it
contains romance!
It’s a breakneck
action thriller set in 16th Century Ireland. An edge-of-your-seat page turner which will leave readers white-knuckled so that it has drawn
comparisons in terms of its pace to ‘The Da Vinci Code’. The protagonist is a
deadly sniper named Abel de Santiago, a Spanish solider who is stationed to the
Spanish Netherlands. When his treacherous army comrades kill his pregnant Dutch
wife, Santiago deserts the army and hunts them down to Seville. Before he can
achieve his revenge he is captured by the men he hunts who sell him as a galley
slave, leaving him to row aboard one of the ships forming part of the Spanish
Armada. Yet his real troubles start following the Armada’s defeat at the famous
Battle of Gravelines, when he finds himself shipwrecked upon the coast of
Ireland. For Ireland is a country terrorized by mounted English troopers called
Sassenachs, who have orders to find, torture and kill all Spanish castaways.
Santiago’s fate appears sealed, so that the reader is instantly confronted with
a pressing, life or death question: can Santiago outrun his own fate? I should
also add that The Sheriff’s Catch has
earned incredible reviews to date on Goodreads and Amazon, and is also the
first instalment in a five-novel series called The Sassana Stone Pentalogy.
What inspired you to write this book?
I read Dan
Brown’s The Da Vinci Code when I was
23, and it was the first novel I could not put down until I finished reading
it. Henri Charriere’s Papillon was
another novel which greatly inspired me, a highly intriguing thriller which is
recounted in the first person. I wanted to write something as addictive as
those two books, and when I read the first chapter of Q by Luther Blissett, I knew that I could do it in an original and
largely unexploited setting like 16th Century Europe.
The spark of inspiration
occurred a year later when I read a small non-fiction book called Ireland: The Graveyard of the Spanish Armada
by T.P. Kilfeather yet another book which I could not put down until I had
finished reading it cover to cover. The adventures of the Spanish castaways in
16th C Ireland blew my mind, and I knew I finally had a setting to
write an incredible novel to rival my favourite historical thrillers which have
been a great inspiration to me like Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Adventures of Captain Alatriste, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Tiger, Tim Willocks’ Tannhauser
Trilogy, Q and Altai by Luther Blissett / Wu Ming, J.B. Pick’s The Last Valley, Robert E. Howard’s The Adventures of Solomon’s Kane and
Robert Low’s The Whale Road. I was definitely
also inspired by fantasy series like Tolkien’s and Stephen Donaldson’s
trilogies and David Eddings’ pentalogies, which were part of the reason I
wanted to write a lengthy yet pacey epic that a reader could be happily lost
Excerpt from The Sheriff’s Catch:
‘Take his
keys!’ I yelled out in Sabir, feeling like I spoke the thoughts of most
present. ‘Take his bloody keys!’

Dimas’s eyes
widened as I stood off the bench and pointed at him, still shouting at the
other slaves to act. As the overseer made to speak, a brawny arm suddenly
curled about his throat, which belonged to a hefty Berber strokesman. The
enormous slave nodded at me once, before he spoke to the rowers alongside him.

‘Get the

He then bent
over sideways and shoved the stunned Dimas underwater. The crazed overseer
kicked with his feet and twisted and turned, yet it was all in vain as the
bulging muscles rippled in the arm of his victim turned aggressor. Meanwhile
another slave had already reached Dimas’s side and undone his huge belt, with
the heavy clanking keys passing through many hands even before the overseer had
stopped kicking. The large Berber then pulled Dimas’s head from the bilge water
and wrung his neck for good measure.

‘Be silent,’
he boomed across the benches, ‘and let none escape without my command!’
declared himself the leader of the slave revolt, the giant then turned his
tattooed face towards our side of the deck, waiting for us all to be freed.
When the last shackle was undone he strode towards the steps before us, crying
out to the surviving rowers who already milled behind him.

craves freedom, join with us now!’

A roar was
returned as most hurried after him, with only a handful still clinging to their
benches in fear. I flung Esteban away as Maerten and I hurried out, scarcely
believing our luck as we ran after the fleeing rows of slaves. A swish of bilge
water was heard at our feet before we ran towards the steps. As we hurried
through the infirmary I could see that it was choked with countless wounded
men, who groaned aloud at our passing while the physicians and surgeons stared
at us in disbelief.

Upon reaching
the main deck we were greeted by a flash of lightning, which streaked the
nightly heavens. The sight left us startled before our ears were deafened by a
roar of thunder. Our galley continued to lurch leeward as the end of great
waves spattered our decks. The scent of the open ocean left me feeling
half-revived, as I took in the chaos which Costa had mentioned. Ahead of us, guards
beat back mutineers before they too were set upon by the Berber and his freed
cohorts. We all swayed to the growing throes of the ocean, and at the prow a
despairing nobleman flung gold doubloons overboard and cried out in despair.
What exciting story are you working on
My next story
will be ‘A Rebel North’, the second instalment in ‘The Sassana Stone Pentalogy’
and sequel to The Sheriff’s Catch.
People have asked me to describe it to them, and my reply has always been that
while ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’ is more of a rollicking ‘man on the run’ story like
Mel Gibson’s movie ‘Apocalypto’, ‘A Rebel North’ is more about a stranger in a
strange land trying to assimilate into a different society. So it’s more like
Kevin Costner’s ‘Dances With Wolves’ or Richard Harris’ ‘A Man Called Horse’.
I’ll stop there because I don’t want to give much more away, except to say that
16th C Gaelic culture is staggeringly interesting, especially when
it comes to the status which was afforded to women!
When did you first consider yourself a
experienced structural editors Jessica Hatch and Craig Taylor told me that I
could write. And especially a couple of weeks ago when legendary New York
literary agent Albert Zuckerman told me that I had talent and lots of energy.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's
your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find
time to write?
I’ve only
written full-time once in my life, back in 2010 when I took eight months out to
rewrite my first draft of The Sassana Stone Pentalogy, during which time I was
financially supported by my then partner (now my wife). Otherwise it’s always
been free time. I estimate that part-time writing is 6 months of a full-time
year and that free-time writing is 3 months of a full-time year. All of which
makes my final wordcount north of 450k words at the end of 2016 quite silly. I
don’t know how I managed it.
My Monday is
as follows: drop kids off at school, commute to work, commute home back from
work, do homework with kids and put them to bed. Then I crumple on the sofa for
five minutes, playing this silly computer game on my iPhone to clear my brain.
If there’s any drops of energy left in the rag I then peel myself off the couch
and plonk myself on the kitchen table, open my laptop and start to write.
I try to
write at least two lines, which most days leads to writing until midnight or 1am.
I then pass out on the bed and it’s Groundhog Day again for the following four working
days of the week. On weekends I’m sometimes too shattered after a whole day
with young kids to do anything at night, but it’s getting easier as my younger
one grows older. Needless to say that given this highly busy routine (sometimes
my evenings get taken up by admin etc.) I write and read a lot on my iPhone on
the train and during the lunch break. Although I hate smart phones which are
such an intrusion on our lives, without the iPhone I’d not have been able to do
what I’ve done, that’s for sure.
What would you say is your interesting
writing quirk?
When short of
time I record ideas on my video app on the iPhone, then email the recordings to
my author email. I type them out later on at night. I’m a big believer in
writing down your idea there and then, which sometimes leads to awkward
situations during the day.
As a child, what did you want to be when
you grew up?
Australian author. Tick, tick.
Anything additional you want to share
with the readers?
Check out the
ratings and reviews of The Sheriff’s
by real (and I mean real) readers on Goodreads and don’t be put off
by the ‘historical fiction’ tag. I hate calling my novel ‘historical fiction’,
because it’s not - it’s actually a thriller set 500 years ago. So much love and
attention to detail has gone into this novel, it’s definitely not your usual
airport quick-flick, although it’s as pacey – one reviewer aptly described it
as ‘a blockbuster with depth.’ It is a really authentic and original piece of
I also wanted
to add that the novel trailer for The Sheriff’s Catch (which I created) has
been recently nominated in the ‘Best trailer for a book or novel category’ at
the 19th Golden Trailer Awards to be held in Los Angeles on 31 May
2018! Still pinching myself and can’t wait to attend this prestigious ceremony.
Thanks for stopping by today, James.

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